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March 14, 2013
Sometimes, players just find themselves in the right place at the right time. When Steven Smith was named in Australia's 17-man squad for this Indian tour, he appeared to be the 17th most likely to play a Test. The selectors made it plain that Smith was chosen as a backup batsman, not an allrounder, but the way they have structured the side with the wicketkeeper batting at six, Smith was not even the first backup - that role was occupied by Usman Khawaja.
But Khawaja forgot his homework and Matthew Wade rolled his ankle on the basketball court and all of a sudden, Smith has found himself back in the Test team for the first time since the disastrous Ashes series of 2010-11. That was the series that prompted the Argus Report. It was Australia's nadir, including as it did three innings losses at home to England.
Smith was a floating player of limited impact in that series. Xavier Doherty was an out-of-his-depth spinner. Ricky Ponting looked more chance of being around for the 2013 Ashes at age 38. Now, with two Tests remaining until the Ashes, Ponting is retired from Test cricket and is at home piling up Sheffield Shield hundreds - he scored 104 for Tasmania as the first day in Mohali was washed out - but Doherty and Smith are back in the Test side.
Smith will bat at No. 5 in Mohali. He is fortunate to be in the team, and not just because of Khawaja's off-field mistake. The Australian batting cupboard is alarmingly bare, as highlighted by the fact that Ponting is on top of the Shield run tally this year while Phillip Hughes, who has looked awful against spin on this tour and would have been dropped but for the homework punishments, is in second place.
Tasmania's Alex Doolan is enjoying a productive season back home and could have been considered for this tour but there are few other batsmen pressing their claims. When the squad was announced, John Inverarity spoke highly of Smith's ability against spin bowling, which swayed them to choose him despite him not having scored a Shield hundred this season. Not that his batting form has been poor: he has 296 runs at 37 this summer and averaged 41 last season.
In his first incarnation as a Test cricketer, against Pakistan in England in 2010, Smith was chosen as the frontline spinner in Australia's side. Against England he was a floating batting allrounder, but he did not have the technique for Test cricket. Now, he hardly bowls. He has sent down only 15 overs in the Shield this season and was getting hit over the top by the struggling Hughes during Australia's centre-wicket training on day four in Hyderabad.
But Smith is not here for his bowling. Good judges believe his technique has improved since he last played Test cricket. Inverarity believes so, as does Ponting, who captained four of the five Tests Smith has played. "I think we've seen Steven Smith develop into a better player in the last 12 months than he was when we first saw him play for Australia," Ponting said this week.
By the standards of Australian domestic cricket in recent years, his first-class batting record is actually pretty good. In 38 matches he has averaged 41.74 and has made five centuries and 14 fifties. He was the only Australian besides Ed Cowan to survive for 100 deliveries in the first of the warm-up matches in Chennai, where he scored 41 from 107 balls against the Indian Board President's XI.
"I think I've improved a lot the last 12 to 18 months," Smith said after being named in Australia's XI. "I've changed a couple of things with my technique that have made me a bit more stable at the crease, a bit more balanced and more selective as well. I feel like I'm tightening my technique up quite a bit and I feel as if I've been playing spin really well on this trip.
"I've probably always been more of a batsman than I was a bowler. Getting picked in different teams in those roles was very special. The first two Tests I played, I played as a bowler. It's a bit different now to come in as a No. 5 specialist batter and that's something I've worked really hard on in the last couple of years, tightening my technique up and becoming more balanced and getting big runs."
When Smith last played a Test he was 21 years old. He is only 23 now. There is still plenty of time for him to gain maturity. But for the time being, he has the chance to show what he has learnt over the past two years. It's good to be in the right place at the right time, but pointless unless you grab the chance when it's presented.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Brydon Coverdale
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